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Improvement of NiTi shape memory actuator performance through ultra-fine grained and nanocrystalline microstructures
Ultra-fine grain sizes have been shown to enhance some key mechanical and functional properties of engineering materials, including shape memory alloys. While the effect of ultra-fine and nanocrystalline grain sizes on pseudoelastic shape memory materials is well-appreciated in medical device engineering, the effect of such microstructures on actuators has not been sufficiently characterized. In the present work, it is demonstrated that NiTi spring actuators with ultra-fine grained microstructures can be obtained by conventional wire drawing in combination with heat treatments and that the final grain size can be controlled by varying the final annealing temperature. Annealing at 400 °C for 600 s allows for the evolution of microstructures with median grain sizes of about 34 nm, while annealing at 600 °C for the same length of time results in median grain sizes of about 5 µm. It is observed that the grain size strongly affects the elementary processes of the martensitic phase transformation. Small austenite grain sizes inhibit twinning accommodation of transformation strains, such that a higher driving force is required to nucleate martensite. This increase in the martensite nucleation barrier decreases the martensite transformation temperatures such that only partial transformation to martensite is possible upon cooling to room temperature. The incomplete martensitic transformation reduces the exploitable actuator stroke; however, a reduction in grain size is shown to improve the functional stability of the material during thermal and thermomechanical cycling by reducing the irreversible effects of dislocation plasticity.